If you saw one of the few fleeting trailers for The Ice Harvest, you may have had the same questions I had walking into the theater, such as “What the heck is this movie about?” The previews make it look like a cross between National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and Bad Santa. Sadly, I sat through the movie and am not much closer to an answer to that question than I was before I went in. My suspicion is that the infrequency and vagueness of the trailers is a marketing ploy to try get as many people into the theaters to see this Thanksgiving turkey before it dies its inevitable, quick death.
The film certainly isn’t lacking in talent. A reasonably solid cast and director working from a script by Oscar-winning writer-director Robert Benton and his frequent collaborator, Richard Russo, should have yielded much better results than this traffic accident of a movie. Director Harold Ramis, eschewing the lightweight comedy that was his bread and butter in hits such as Groundhog Day, wants you to know from the beginning that this dark tale of a robbery gone wrong is a change of pace for him. Since strip clubs are a frequent locale in the film, there are gratuitous, lingering shots of worked-over strippers, complete with stretch marks, baby bellies and black eyes. When violence rears its ugly head, Ramis makes sure it is just that ugly. This is one of those films that wants desperately to be daring or shocking, but ends up simply repellant and boring. The script is one of the film’s biggest problems. It’s a dark comedy that’s not terribly funny, a heist movie with little suspense and a character study full of people you couldn’t care less about.
The actors do little to enliven the proceedings. John Cusack sleepwalks through his role as Charlie Arglist, a mob lawyer who steals two million dollars with the help of his shady buddy, Vic (Billy Bob Thornton). Thornton, despite his billing, has a relatively small role and appears to be doing a phoned-in rip-off of his work in Bad Santa. Unlike Santa, his role here is charmless and (like much of the movie) ultimately pointless. Oliver Platt shows up just long enough to trot out a stereotypical drunken lout routine, while Randy Quaid‘s role as the mob boss essentially boils down to one scene – and he’s bad in it. Quaid has certainly fallen a long way from his Oscar-nominated work in The Last Detail and you can see why he’s currently languishing in third-rate TV movies. There?s even a doltish police officer, whose cutesy scenes feel like awkward, reheated Fargo. Finally, there?s Connie Nielsen as Renata, the lone principal female in this turgid tale. Nielsen apparently is supposed to be some kind of femme fatale and her wardrobe and peek-a-boo hairstyle suggest the filmmakers were trying to evoke 1940s-era Veronica Lake or Lauren Bacall. Unfortunately, those are pretty big shoes to fill and Nielsen doesn’t have the chops to flesh out her poorly written role. Her entire characterization consists of breathy whispering and hippy sashaying. Nielsen‘s character is also emblematic of another serious problem in the film. In trying so hard to create a gritty, masculine world, the film is uncomfortably misogynistic and Nielsen, like all the other women in the film (who, by the way, are all strippers), alternately functions as a sex object and a punching bag.
The film clocks in at less than an hour and a half, yet it feels more like two hours. Pointless sidesteps in the name of “character development” weigh this already dull and unpleasant film down. Conversely, the film skips over crucial details like how Cusack and Thornton hatched their scheme, why they?re pulling their heist on Christmas, and who Renata is and how she knows anybody in the film. Periodically, there are glimpses of what the movie could have been. Unfortunately, there aren?t enough of them to save this smug, pseudo-ironic, wishes-it-were-deeper-and-hipper film from being a total waste of time.
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